Weâ€™d been talking about snakes. My husband, Allen, wanted to check out a trout stream a few hours away, but we were at our river cottage, his tall boots were back at the house, and this was snake season. â€œWhat would I do if I ever got bitten?â€ he asked. Weâ€™d speculated about this before and didnâ€™t know the answer.
â€œDonâ€™t go,â€ I said.
But he was itchy and restless. â€œIâ€™ll be careful,â€ he said.
Six hours later, he returned with a triumphant face. â€œCome see what I have!â€ he called out from the pick-up.
â€œSome nice trout?â€ I asked.
I peered into the bucket and didnâ€™t immediately recognize what I saw. â€œItâ€™s a rattlesnake,â€ he said. I gasped, imagining him in a life and death struggle.
The story that unfolded, however, was not exactly heroic. Heâ€™d been walking along one of two ruts that formed a trail when he spotted the snake up ahead, lying along one of the ruts. A boy on a bike came up the trail, and he told the boy to take the far rut, though he didnâ€™t tell him why. After the boy passed, he got as close to the snake as he dared and noted its markings: a timber rattler. He poked at it with the tip of his rod to encourage it to move along. Feeling itself under attack, the snake coiled, rattled, and prepared to strike. Allen threw rocks at it, big ones, until the snake was dead.
I didnâ€™t like this story.
â€œWhy did you have to kill it?â€
â€œIt coiled up, ready to strike!â€
â€œOnly because you provoked it.â€
â€œTimber rattlers are poisonous!â€ he insisted. â€œWhat if I hadnâ€™t noticed it? The boy on the bike could have gotten bitten.â€
Clearly, he wanted me to be proud of him, the mighty hunter who had killed a rattle snake practically with his bare hands.
â€œIt probably would have waited quietly until the boy passed, then gone on its way,â€ I said. â€œWhat you did was an act of terrorism.â€
My remarks, however, did not dampen his enthusiasm. He set to work cheerfully skinning the snake. â€œIâ€™m going to make myself a headband for my fishing hat,â€ he said. â€œIf you want, Iâ€™ll make you one too.â€
I said Iâ€™d pass.
We had an old agreement, though, that would have to be honored. During our courting days Iâ€™d made him promise that anything he killed deliberately would end up on our plates. That way, I reasoned, the animal or fish would not have died in vain. It was how I made my peace with the hunter in him. We ate plenty of fish, wild ducks, venison, and sometimes doves, quail, and the occasional wild goose. Once we ate a huge snapping turtle. But weâ€™d never eaten a snake.
The timber rattler was full of bones and not very meaty, but the bits were tasty. As is our custom, we thanked the snake for giving us its life. The words coming from Allenâ€™s mouth, however, did not strike me as wholly sincere.
The following year, another snake entered our lives, this time at our house. It was spring. Allen was shouting, â€œCome here! Quick!â€ so I bolted down the back steps to the basement doors, where a long black snake lay stretched out by the compost bins. Iâ€™d never seen a wild snake up close before, and the tiny hairs on my body tingled. He was a magnificent being, about four feet long, a thick, elongated S, shiny black and glossy, like a giant licorice twist. He darted his forked tongue in our direction, scenting us, as curious about us as we were of him.
â€œYou arenâ€™t going to kill it, are you?â€ I asked accusingly.
â€œOf course not!â€ he said. â€œBlack snakes are good snakes.â€
Theyâ€™re â€œgoodâ€ because theyâ€™re not poisonous, and because they keep the population of rodents, ground squirrels, and other burrowers and seed-snatchers in check. So the â€œgoodâ€ snake would be allowed to live. Our implicit agreement was: You keep your distance, and weâ€™ll keep ours.
â€œBlackie,â€ as we came to call him, lived under a railroad tie by our garage and liked to sun himself. All summer we caught sight of him draped along the gravel drive like thick black ric rac, or lounging in the bright green grass like a narrow, unfolded accordion. It was always a thrill to see him â€” the small frisson of fear followed by wonder and a prickly kind of joy. Secretly, I took enormous pride in having our own private snake. It felt like a privilege to share our space with this mythic creature, the object of so much human fear and dread.
Once, while Allen was picking pole beans, moving steadily from the top down, he reached the bottom and found Blackie stretched out under the lowest leaves, inches away from his hands. Blackie eyed him lazily and continued to rest there peaceably.
It made a good story. The serpent in our garden. Our guardian serpent. Our benign, serene, â€œgoodâ€ snake.
That fall, I had my own encounter with Blackie. I had come out of the house into the breezeway, when I noticed a bent black stick protruding from the crack between the breezeway door and the doorjamb. I barely had time to wonder how that stick had gotten there when I realized who it was. A wave of hot fear passed through meâ€”I was less than a foot from him, his head level with my hip â€” and I jumped back. For a split second I thought how easy it would be to slam the door shut. The blow would crush him, possibly cut him in two. But that murderous thought soon morphed into sheer admiration â€” the way he perched there defying gravity, like a sorcererâ€™s enchanted rope.
He seemed in no hurry to leave, so I went back into the house for a large shopping bag which I held between myself and Blackieâ€™s curious, suspended head while I slipped by.
The following spring, midway through a Saturday of chores, Allen came into the kitchen. â€œI need your help,â€ he said. â€œI hope youâ€™re willing, because I canâ€™t do it alone.â€ I gave him a look. What on earth was he up to now?
I followed him out and around to the basement doors, where a jumble of nylon netting lay in a heap. â€œI planned to put it over the cherry tree after I finished mowing,â€ he said. â€œTo keep the birds away. But look.â€ I stared at the pile. Hopelessly tangled in the webbing was the black snake.
We hadnâ€™t seen him since the previous fall. Now he was in deep trouble, his tongue flickering wildly. He had obviously been tangled there for some time, and the more he struggled, the more tightly enmeshed he became. The nylon netting was impossible to tear; we had to free him, or he would die.
â€œYouâ€™ll have to hold him while I cut away the netting,â€ Allen said.
Trapped in a dangerous situation, all snakes will bite. Did that make him a â€œbadâ€ snake now?
We put on our thickest gardening gloves. I took a deep breath, reached into the tangle, and took hold of Blackie, positioning one hand a few inches behind his head, the other half way down his body. I could feel the enormous force of his muscles as he strained to free himself. It thrilled and amazed me to feel that body, the sheer will in it.
Allen began snipping at the mesh with a pair of scissors, starting at the area near the snakeâ€™s tail. As part of it became free, he would sling it up, like a whip.
â€œHang on, Blackie,â€ Allen said. â€œYouâ€™ll be free soon.â€
But â€œsoonâ€ took far longer than we expected.
The mesh had gotten so tight that it bit into the flesh. Allen switched to manicure scissors and wedged one of the tiny blades between the mesh and Blackieâ€™s skin for each snip. We could see the criss-cross of his pores, his miniature scales, like those of a fish. Where the mesh dug in, the scales tore, and the skin looked raw and sore. I stared at Blackieâ€™s white underbelly, the part of him I had never seen before, and felt oddly moved. I tried to imagine how all this must feel to him, the ever-tightening grip of his prison, then the sudden, partial, release. Did he sense that we were helping him, or did we seem like some strange tormentors?
It took all my strength to hold Blackieâ€™s freed part still while Allen cut away the nylon, inch by inch. It was hard work, the snake struggling desperately, every muscle in his body straining. Our muscles, too, strained with effort and attention, our own residual fear thrumming in the bone. It would have been far easier to chuck the whole thing â€” mesh and snake â€” over the side of the hill and let nature take its course. But this felt like an act of atonement. Though we never mentioned the timber rattler of two summers before, its ghost shape hovered over us.
Finally, only Blackieâ€™s head remained entangled. He watched us with his beady eyes, his tongue still flickering. With the last snip, Allen said, â€œNow comes the tricky part. We have to let him go without getting bitten.â€ Gingerly, he took Blackie from my hands, swung him back gently, and flung him out into the grass. Blackie lay there stunned for a few seconds, then slithered quickly off into the weeds.
Good snake, I thought, then corrected myself. A snake is no more â€œgoodâ€ or â€œbadâ€ than a tree is, or a rock.
As I watched his tail disappear into the weeds, I wondered how Blackie must feel, his whole body bruised and sore, the smell of humans all over him. What memory of this event would he carry in his snake brain? Would he associate our scent with that terrible moment when he sensed the likelihood of his own death? Or would he remember that in our presence, the awful thing that imprisoned him fell away? In the days, weeks, months to come, for the rest of his life, would he think â€œgood human,â€ or would he think â€œbad humanâ€?